Lit-urday: Romance and Cigarettes
Novels perfect for fueling the fire of a summer weekend
By Jessi Cape,
10:30AM, Sat. Jun. 14, 2014
It's been a long week, and now you deserve to have one day when you can curl up with a good book – let's call it Lit-urday. How about some Caribbean intrigue and a few literary affairs?
For those of us who keep our face in the pages year-round, discovering new releases and old favorites is best when inspired by life’s endless stream of serendipity. So, here’s my recent list of pop magic-fueled reading selections.
An Untamed State
by Roxane Gay
Black Cat, Grove Atlantic, 367 pp., $16
In a February post about Black History Month, I mentioned the May release of Roxane Gay’s first novel, and as soon as I got my hands on a copy, I devoured it. Dedicated to “Women, the world over,” Gay’s story of Mireille Duval Jameson, and the dramatic way her enviable life changes in an instant, is certainly poised to affect anyone who reads the book. Honestly, without indulging cliches, this really is a book that kept me up reading all night, early alarm clock be damned.
Haitian-American Mireille is, with her husband and baby, visiting her family in their high-wall-secured mansion in Port-Au-Prince, and within the first chapter, Mireille has been captured and thrown into hell for a ransom. Her only chance of release is entirely dependent on her wealthy father, and he feels obligated to stand up against the kidnappers’ demands. She is fierce, often to her own detriment, and she quickly discovers the only method to stay alive: She kills her psychological self. Yet outside of the gripping, and terrifying, truth of life inside a kidnapping victim’s tortuous days, it is also Gay’s story of the aftermath that sears the book into the reader’s mind. Incorporating thematic issues of both Haitian and American cultures’ trouble with sexual violence, gender, race, power, generational gaps, classism, wealth, and poverty in an already heavy plot is daunting at best. But somehow Gay weaves a story that is thrilling and readable and, surprisingly, incredibly enjoyable. It is, ultimately, about survival, but walking away from the story unaffected - both the reader and the characters within - is impossible.
Around this time last year, Gatsby hit theatres, and I wrote up several books with connections to the Fitzgeralds. One, Call Me Zelda, introduced me to Erika Robuck, and lo and behold, just when I was thinking it was about time I check out the rest of her stories, the latest arrived in the mail.
by Erika Robuck
New American Library, Penguin Books, 358 pp., $16
I read some of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poetry in college, but never really researched too much about her life … until I read Robuck’s version of the wild and lovely, rapid-cycling and incredibly unique woman. Fallen Beauty centers around Millay and Laura Kelley, a young woman in love whose family tragedy has already become a strong presence in her life. As stories often go, that love story has a glitch, and Laura finds herself pregnant, unwed, and facing what appears to be at least several more years of societal strife. Millay’s famed Steepletop home overlooks the small town where Laura works as a seamstress alongside her sister in upstate New York in the late Twenties. Millay, her husband, and their entourage throw parties filled with prohibited booze, celebrities, and, well, orgies rooted in artistic exploration, providing endless gossip fodder. But the prolific poet, once the most popular woman in the world, struggles with her own set of problems. Millay and Laura meet, and the story becomes one of strained relationships, clandestine meetings, and, of course, high drama - a priest, a sculptor, forest gypsies, addiction, glamour, children, and politics. What’s particularly interesting is the way Robuck writes the perspective shifts between Laura and Millay. Each woman is painted so vividly that the reader knows her. We identify with their struggles, sometimes, and root for their success; other occasions inspire that kind of engrossed tension, frustration even, that only comes from a great story.
by Erika Robuck
New American Library, Penguin Books, 324 ppg., $16
Even before finishing Fallen Beauty, I immediately bought Hemingway’s Girl so I wouldn’t have to wait a day to become engaged again. This novel marks her shift from Robuck’s first novel, Receive Me Falling, self-published in 2009, into historical fiction with famous literary characters. Set during the 1930s, the story follows Mariella Bennet as she makes her way through Depression-inflicted Key West working odd jobs on the marina to support her mother and sisters after her father’s sudden death. Mariella meets Ernest Hemingway, in all his infamous lore, during his marriage to his second wife, Pauline (Fife to some). Their friendship forms instantly, perpetuated by the known lover of women, Hemingway, and through a series of events, becomes muddled. Mariella meets Gavin Murray, a World War II veteran who fights to make some pocket change, around the same time she becomes one of Pauline’s housekeepers. No surprise, but problems arise. Though the story is a bit predictable, and certainly gushy, it’s entertaining. A weather-related tragedy throws the story on its head, and I was fascinated to know that the massive Labor Day hurricane of 1935 was an actual historical event. Overall an enjoyable read, but in hindsight, Ms. Robuck was only sharpening her story-telling knife.
Reading most of an author’s body of work means two things: You enjoy her writing, and you begin to appreciate nuances and a maturing style. The fourth Robuck novel, Fallen Beauty, is my favorite. The writing is tighter and more engaging, and the more fully rounded characters dance through the plot to the tune of a much more emotionally-stirring story. Robuck has a contribution to an anthology releasing in July, but I hope she’ll write another full-length novel soon, because she just keeps getting better.
by Naomi Wood
Penguin Books, 322 pp., $16
After Hemingway’s Girl, my longtime fascination with Hemingway was triggered, and serendipity struck again when Naomi Wood’s second novel showed up the next day. Mrs. Hemingway is divided into four sections, one for each of Ernest Hemingway’s wives. As history, and Wood’s story goes, there is significant overlap in each of the women’s stories, and the view of Ernest progresses from his carefree early 20s, through the fame and fortune, until just after his death. The novel opens during a vacation to Antibes, France in 1926 with Hadley Richardson - the first Mrs. Hemingway - Ernest, and their son. Also along on the trip is Pauline Pfeiffer, known as Fife, who becomes Hadley’s best friend, and then the second Mrs. Hemingway. Hadley is a gentle, loving home for Ernest, while Fife is exciting and fashionable and madly in love with the up-and-coming writer. Martha Gelhorn, the third Hemingway wife, becomes a war correspondent and world traveler at Ernest’s coaxing, with enough ambition, talent, and temper to match his own. Mary Welsh, a fellow writer, meets an older, pained, and scarred Hemingway, and she loves him in spite of it all.
Each woman’s section naturally illuminates individual personalities, but what really struck me about this intimate story of a very famous lifetime is the bond of friendship between these women who all loved the same man. And Papa himself - one of the most studied writers in history - is written in a way that doesn’t glorify or sugarcoat his tendencies toward flawed and irrational, sometimes violent and often self-destructive, behavior. Vivid, emotional, and passionate, it’s a great read.
It’s definitely time for a shift in subject, so I’ve just started reading The Bees, by Laline Paul.